Should researchers prove their socio-economic worth?

Florence Jones.

Benjamin Franklin once said that ‘Knowledge is the best form of investment’. However, the investment required to acquire knowledge, especially through unique research, almost always has a financial component, and money, especially public money, is a limited commodity. It has been well publicised that over the last few years the UK government has been making cuts to public spending. Healthcare, welfare and education have all been affected. These tighter budgets have meant obtaining a research grant is ever more challenging. For the year 2015-2016 a mere 32%1 of applications to the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (ESPRC), were successful. In such an environment it is imperative that the criteria for allocating money to research are made as effective as possible. The potential socio-economic worth of research is one of the criteria that could be used, but is this a good approach?

Industry Funded Research

In most working environments, if you want to spend your employer’s money you have to justify the expenditure by demonstrating the benefit that will be obtained. Whether it’s for a training course or a new computer, employers want to know the payback on their investment

Major companies that have a significant research department, such as GSK, BAE Systems, Apple and Samsung, self-fund most of their research. As these publicly-listed companies must answer to their shareholders, the potential economic benefits of research are always going to be the major consideration in deciding what to fund. If a project is not going to deliver future profit to the company it is very unlikely the research will be funded.

Judging whether to fund research purely on its potential economic return has its shortcomings though. In the last 40 years very little research has been done into new antibiotic drugs. Many large pharmaceutical companies have closed down their antibiotic research divisions as they believe little or no profit can be made. Antibiotics are generally only used by patients for a few days at a time so they don’t provide the same profit margin as drugs such as Cancer treatments that are used by patients over longer periods. Further, any new antibiotics would be reserved to treat infections that have become resistant to existing antibiotics. This would make their use quite limited and reduce profit further. There is however a clear and urgent medical need for new antibiotics given the recent rise in antibiotic resistant infections such as MRSA. The pharmaceutical industry’s disinterest in antibiotic research means this medical need isn’t being met, and demonstrates the problem with determining research priorities purely on economic returns.

Public Funding

In the UK public funding of research is executed through Fund Councils and Research Councils. Fund Councils provide money to university departments who then largely determine their own research priorities. Research Councils on the other hand generally fund specific projects. Research councils provide £3 billion2 of funding a year across the entire academic spectrum ranging from the physical sciences to social sciences. In comparison Fund Councils provided £1.722 billion for the year 2016/17.

The UK Government see public funding of research as an investment in the future of the country. The Research Councils state that they aim to “support excellent research, as judged by peer review, that has an impact on the growth, prosperity and wellbeing of the UK.” Given this aim, do Research Councils need to think purely about the socio-economic benefits when deciding what projects to fund, or should they consider other potential benefits that the research may have for the UK public.

Fundamental research is key to many further discoveries. In the short term this research may provide very little socio-economic benefit but it can be crucial in the creation of important technology in years to come. One prime example of this is the use of Einstein’s theory of relativity in the operation of GPS satellites. GPS uses multiple satellite signals to determine your location by calculating the time taken for signals to travel from the satellites to the receiver, for example a smartphone. This requires the clocks on both the satellites and the receiver to be precisely synchronized. However as the satellites are moving very close to the speed of light relativistic effects cause the clocks to drift out of sync. In order for GPS to accurately estimate a location these relativistic effects must be taken into consideration. When Einstein first postulated his theories of relativity over 100 years ago, nobody would have foreseen how it would help enable GPS services today.

Astronomy is an area where the social benefits of research seem more obvious than the economic ones. It can be argued that greatest contribution of Astronomical research to the world is a greater understanding of our universe, a purely social benefit. Interest in Astronomy stretches far beyond academics, with many members of the general public having an active interest in the subject and keen to know more. In addition, major astronomical events and discoveries generate a great deal of interest in the media and the wider public. These social benefits can be seen to deliver some justification for the money spent on research. In addition, Astronomy can provide examples where advances from research have been picked up and successfully used in the commercial world. For instance, the imaging software now widely used in cameras and mobile phones was developed in astronomical research.

Medical Physics research is also a key area that can provide non-economic benefits to the public. The long-term benefits from this research are vast. In England and Wales over 160,000 artificial hip and knee joints are fitted a year.3 Research into the materials used for these artificial joints has improved the quality of life for thousands of people across the UK. While this research does have some economic benefits, it is the impact on people’s health that has provided the major justification to conduct the research.

The discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012 is one of the most publicised scientific events of this century. Its discovery cemented fundamental theories about mass. Yet despite the vast media attention, it is difficult to justify the research on purely economic grounds. It’s estimated to have cost $13.25 billion4 to discover the Higgs Boson but there is nothing that has come out of the research to date to deliver any economic benefit of that kind of magnitude. The media frenzy surrounding the discovery of the Higgs Boson could be deemed a great benefit in a wider social context. In the last twenty years there have been very few scientific discoveries that captured the attention of the world in quite the same manner. It could be argued that the public interest it generated for scientific research helps justify the cost.

In simple terms there seem to be three main justifications for funding research. The first justification is that increasing human knowledge and understanding is an end in itself, even if the research has no other obvious social or economic benefit. The second justification is because it is felt the research can deliver some direct economic benefit to the organisation funding the research, and the third is because there is thought to be some wider social benefit to be obtained from the research.

Research which has a clear potential economic benefit will often be funded by private industry, assuming the future profits it can deliver justify the cost of the research. In such cases there is little justification for any public funding. However, the case of antibiotic research discussed earlier demonstrates how this solely economic approach can fail the public. In these cases, researchers should be able to demonstrate the wider social benefits to justify some public funding for the necessary research.

In the current age of austerity, where the government is cutting funding across many areas, people may argue there is really no justification for funding research without obvious socio-economic benefit. However, even if you accept this view, history has shown that such research often delivers unexpected socio-economic benefits, even if this happens many years later. Funding for academically excellent research on this basis is surely justified, without it the danger is that all research will end up being focussed on short-term socio-economic benefits, and major advances in human knowledge will be missed.

However, it is unrealistic given the size of the public research budget to expect Government to fund all research in this way. The public will expect that much of the research they fund is targeted at specific socio-economic benefits. In many respects public funding for research must be treated as an investment in the future of the UK, so the potential benefits of any research, no matter how big or small, must be explained to help justify the cost. These benefits may be economic, social or could just be inspiring a new generation of research scientists. If the public is investing in science then it is only right they receive a return on their investment.

 

References

  1. EPSRC Website, Accessed November 2016, https://www.epsrc.ac.uk/
  2. Higher Education Funding for England Website, Accessed November 2016, http://www.hefce.ac.uk/rsrch/funding/
  3. National Joint Registry Website, Accessed November 2016, http://www.njrcentre.org.uk/njrcentre/Patients/Jointreplacementstatistics/tabid/99/Default.aspx
  4. Knapp, ‘How Much Does It Cost To Find A Higgs Boson’, Forbes Magazine, Accessed November 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2012/07/05/how-much-does-it-cost-to-find-a-higgs-boson/#652dd77c64f0

 

Should researchers prove their socio-economic worth?

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